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At close view, 1997 wasn't such a great season for Stewart

Sunday, August 27, 2000

Get in line. The very back of the line, where it curls like a dog's tail. Stand at the point where you can't see the front of it anymore. Because if you are among those hoping for Kordell Stewart to blossom as a quarterback, there are dozens of Steelers' executives and coaches in line ahead of you.

 
 

Stan Savran is the co-host of SportsBeat on Fox Sports Pittsburgh.

   
 

Whatever competition there was/is between Stewart and Kent Graham, the Steelers want Kordell to win. Not only to justify their considerable investment in him, but also because his potential is so much greater than Graham's. But that begs the question: Exactly what is Kordell's potential? And on what is it based?

For most people, it's the 1997 season. The theory stipulates, "Well, he did it in '97, so he should be able to do it again." Obviously, that was his best season. But those stats from '97 are a bit misleading, which may make expectations of him unrealistic.

Including the two playoff games in '97, Stewart completed a rather pedestrian 52 percent of his passes. By comparison, in the disaster that was last season, his completion percentage was six points higher at 58 percent. In '97, again including the playoffs, he threw 22 touchdown passes but also threw 21 interceptions, an unacceptable ratio. His quarterback rating for the regular season was 75, a decent, but not outstanding figure.

The point is, while 1997 was his best season, it's looked upon as tremendous because the team was 11-5 and played in the AFC title game. It's said that he led his teammates there. Not that he didn't contribute, but in my judgment, it was much more the other way around. He was more passenger than driver. Let's remember that the talent level in the offensive huddle since then has changed dramatically -- for the worse. So what we have here is an expectation based on a flawed premise.

Even more revealing is the decline in his play down the stretch and into the playoffs. In the final two regular-season games, and the two playoff games, Kordell completed 49 percent of his passes for just two touchdowns and seven interceptions. He did run for three scores in that span. And while you can't discount that element of his game, it will never compensate for a lopsided interception-to-touchdown pass ratio.

Here's what makes all this relevant to the here and now. Beginning with the second-to-last regular season game in New England, the one where Kevin Henry's interception saved the day, opponents began to figure out how to defense Kordell. Pete Carroll, then the Patriots' head coach, devised a scheme that signaled the beginning of the end. The Steelers' lone touchdown in the playoff game between the two came on a broken play.

The three interceptions in the AFC championship game with Denver kept the Steelers out of the Super Bowl. Since that day, it has been all downhill, and I believe Carroll's defensive game plan, copied and refined by others, is responsible for the state of the quarterback situation today.

People say Stewart doesn't run enough, or they don't call plays designed to take advantage of his skills. Think back. Beginning in '98, how many times did they roll him out on a third- or fourth-and-short, only to find a linebacker waiting with open arms? Even this preseason, when teams don't even have game plans, you'll remember Kordell rolling, with Jason Taylor of the Dolphins standing there like he was waiting for a PAT bus.

Teams have figured it out. They assign a spy, a shadow, to follow Kordell wherever he goes. They maintain containment, not allowing him to stray out of the pocket on the rare occasions when the offensive line provides one. They're saying, "We won't let you beat us with your legs. We don't think you can beat us with your arm." Largely, they've been right.

Watching Kordell play quarterback the past two seasons has been as much fun as pulling a Band-Aid off of your forearm. Nevertheless, considering the alternatives, he represents the Steelers' best hope for the long term.

That's why the organization desperately wants him to succeed. Because if he doesn't, and soon, we won't be having this conversation a year from today. He'll be gone, and the Steelers' rebuilding program will be set back by years. They'll be forced to use a very high pick to draft a replacement.

Although I suppose that's better than using it on an offensive tackle.

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